Ben Menahem’s ‘Monumental’ finds power in woodcuts

By Lisa Stein
Chicago Tribune (Published September 19, 2003)

For most printmakers, creating woodcuts takes a backseat to working in newer, less painstaking media. For Asaph Ben Menahem, however, the oldest form of printmaking has always come first. He sees the medium’s visual austerity and technical demands as a personal challenge, one that he has struggled with for most of his 63 years.

His woodcuts, on view in “Asaph Ben Menahem: Monumental Woodcuts and Related Works,”a retrospective at Oakton Community College’s William Koehnline Gallery, are monumental in size and powerful in effect. Ben Menahem has spent decades contemplating the nature of fear, pain and violence, and these works are not easy to look at. They explore primal terrors in raw, unblinking terms that are enhanced by the medium’s directness and simple yet dramatic compositions.

In preparation for his woodcuts, which he prints by hand rather than in a press, Ben Menahem completes as many as several hundred drawings, and in some cases, large, colorful acrylic paintings. His exhibition includes seven small drawings portraying his latest motif, a vulture, done on book pages bearing text and musical scores. In one drawing the vulture is shown hovering over a train car, a reference to the Holocaust, in which many of his family members perished. Vultures also populate the large painting “Requiem,” sitting on rooftops in a scene painted in lurid shades of yellow, blue, black and pink. The monumental woodcut “Motorized Vulture II,” meanwhile, conveys his subject as a kind of manned jet fighter, from whose left side streaks a lightning bolt.

Although he also produces works in paint, watercolor and pen, Ben Menahem, an Israeli who has lived and taught since 1988 in the Netherlands and who is spending a few weeks this fall in New Jersey as a visiting artist at Rutgers University, says his primary allegiance is to woodcuts. “I get a better message from black and white. It’s a matter of reduction; I think it’s the most difficult. It’s like when people say, `I don’t have time so I’m writing a long letter.’ To write a short letter takes much more time, to find the essence of what you want to say . . . Einstein said this about mathematics and physics, but you can apply it to everything: `Everything must be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,’ meaning that the line between simplicity and banality is very thin.”

With their jagged, slashing lines and figures’ mask-like faces, Ben Menahem’s woodcuts immediately bring to mind early-20th Century German Expressionist works. That is no coincidence. His parents moved from Berlin to Israel in 1933, and he experienced the influence of German Expressionism all around him. His father, a poet, was acquainted with many German artists between the two World Wars and had a collection of art books that Ben Menahem pored over as a young boy in a small village near Tel Aviv. His neighbor, a German immigrant, was an Expressionist painter who gave him lessons.

Along with German Expressionism, Ben Menahem’s other influences include Biblical stories, mathematics, music, poetry, philosophy and African, Oceanic and Greek art. “People like to put my work in the German Expressionist drawer, but that is just one part of it,” he says. “Of course, I’m not German, and I don’t see myself as a German Expressionist at all. For my part, I’ve always had the feeling that I sit on the receiving end of the violence in German Expressionist works.”

This feeling translates into vertiginous perspectives, such as that of “Last View,” a 1987 print measuring roughly 5 feet by 5 feet. It depicts a group of dramatically foreshortened figures, peering down in expressions ranging from contempt to ghoulish curiosity and seen from the vantage point of someone lying in an open grave. “Boat at Low Tide” gives us a view from beneath the bottom of a boat, over whose sides loom macabre faces, while a long-limbed, menacing figure stands on the shore.

Ben Menahem’s earlier works portray full-length figures, such as “Woman Wearing a Hat” and “Three Resting Figures,” both from 1976. The figures’ heads have a skull-like quality, and backgrounds are suggested rather than delineated. Up close they appear abstract; their subjects become more recognizable from the distance of several feet. This aspect increases in Ben Menahem’s newer works, which grow even more abstract.

“What counts for me most is the composition, the best possible solution of arranging elements,” explains Ben Menahem. “The greatest achievement is to make something that looks spontaneous, but in truth every inch is sitting in the right place.”

“Asaph Ben Menahem: Monumental Woodcuts and Related Works” When: Through Oct. 31
Where: William Koehnline Gallery, Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Rd., Des Plaines Price: Free; 847-635-2633

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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November 28, 2011